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The ban that backfired

Published May 20, 2010 04:12pm

Earlier this week, I wrote a blog post regarding the “Draw A Muhammad Day" controversy, highlighting the role of the social networking site Facebook. Let me begin by sharing some of the comments, Tweets and Facebook messages submitted in reaction to my last post (with the saner ones up top):

I have deactivated my Facebook account today, and I requested all my friends to deactivate their accounts on 19th May till 21st may to protest against this group. We demand the Facebook Team to remove the group “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” as soon as possible otherwise we will not use Facebook.
Here's another:
To all those sending requests to join groups like 1) boycott Fb on 20th may 2) Leave fb and join twitter 3) create groups …to stand up against Prophet drawing day, is this the way to ‘counter’ those insults? In fact, we too, including me, insult our Prophet by not following his teachings! There are better ways to counter it, and you all know it.
And a third, of many:
Would banning of Facebook as a social networking forum by all the Muslims be the answer? I mean if it’s all Muslims it can hit them hard, their freedom of speech our freedom of choice.
There we have a few suggestions on how to pressurise Facebook by leading a mass deactivation campaign. Indeed, a plethora of counter groups condemning the campaign proposed a mass deactivation campaign as a reaction to Facebook's failure to remove the offending page.

But by Tuesday night, the PTA had blocked access to the campaign’s fan page on account of it containing hate speech and blasphemous content. While discussions broke out questioning the block and whether it would hurt the campaign itself, the worse was still to come. Yesterday, in accordance with the decision of Lahore High Court, the PTA implemented a ban on social networking website until May 31 (isn't it ironic that the LHC decided to take an immediate and strict stance on a matter like this as compared to the thousands of pending cases in more pressing matters)? The question arises: does a countrywide ban on Facebook 'officially' serve as condemnation? Is this the best possible way to counter the hate speech?

Facebook has expressed disappointment at the site’s banning in Pakistan, and is considering the possibility of blocking the offensive page within the country. That means the campaign page has still not been removed and can continue to be accessed (except from Pakistan). The hate speech on its discussion boards and various comics depicting Muhammad will remain on the site. But just because we cannot see it doesn't mean it no longer exists.

It’s important at this point to clarify exactly what is offensive about the campaign, and for Pakistan to articulate what it is trying to achieve by banning several websites. If the main issue is “Draw A Muhammad Day,” then how is banning Facebook hurting the campaign? The Facebook forum is not the same as the campaign itself. The “Draw a Muhammad Day” website can still be accessed in Pakistan, and it has been updated with news on the campaign and some initial pictures. If anything, the outrage and the ban has served as a PR campaign for the event.

Meanwhile, on Facebook itself, more than 41,000 users joined one page dedicated to the “Draw A Muhammad Day” event, and another 4,400 users ‘liked’ a similar page. On the other hand, 56,000 users joined a Facebook page to oppose the campaign.

What we have here is an enraged audience condemning the hate mongering, but the counter-argument seems to be losing its sense of direction. Now, in the wake of the LHC ban, condemnations are being hurled against Facebook, rather than the campaign itself. The fact is, the failure of Facebook to remove the page doesn't suggest its alliance or support of the campaign. The only thing Facebook can be accused of is remaining indifferent to its users concerns. But, I repeat, this has nothing to do with the campaign, Islam, Muslims, or hate speech.

As I write this, news is coming in that Blackberry services have been suspended across the country by the PTA in an extension of the LHC order to block Facebook, Wikipedia, Flickr, and YouTube. Rumour has it that Gmail will also be shut down. What's next? Are we moving towards implementing a ban on the internet too?

The result of this banning spree is that the last thing most Pakistanis care about now is the issue of inciting hatred, and crafting an effective response to hate speech. Instead, we are now concerned about censorship, authoritarian tendencies in our government, and our own freedom of expression. Quoting some of the Tweets in response to this issue:

@adnanp: so much for "democracy" in pakistan. Wikipedia, youtube, flickr, facebook all banned!

@naveennaqvi: there's no sense of civil disobedience in #Pakistan. the way to challenge the campaign was to protest it not to blank it!

@DrAwab: Worrisome - the PTA notification has no time limit starts now to no end

It is unfortunate that the government is taking staunch steps in banning social media websites across Pakistan in response to a campaign. As a result, what started as a group of hate mongers looking for attention has now turned in to a major source of inconvenience for internet users across Pakistan. As it seems the LHC finds no harm in banning these social media platforms, one must remind them that the very same online tools were mobilised to campaign during the judicial crisis.

This is a a sad day for new media in Pakistan. While many claim this to be a 'victory' against the offensive campaign, I feel at loss. The ban frenzy has only created a win-win situation for extremists on both sides. Instead of allowing people to opt for deactivating their accounts and registering their protests in the way they want, we have been forced to act like sheep once again, forced to jump on a bandwagon, and bear the burden of the perception that we are in fact an intolerant society.

Every individual should have the choice to protest or express their opinion in the way they want, a right that no one should be allowed to take away. I may choose not to use Facebook ever again, but I reserve the right to make that decision on my own.

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Sana Saleem is a Features Editor at BEE magazine and blogs at Global Voices, Pro-Pakistan her personal blog Mystified Justice. She tweets at twitter.com/sanasaleem.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.